Could Pass-The-Hat Kill Open Government?, By Joseph Marks, NextGov (05/18/11).
With the E-Gov fund, which paid for open government websites such as data.gov and usaspending.gov, severely trimmed and unlikely to be restored, the open government group OMB Watch speculated in an article Wednesday that those sites may have to turn to the so-called pass-the-hat funding model to stay in business.
The Trouble with the "Pass-the-Hat" Funding Model for Government Technology Projects, OMB Watch (May 17, 2011).
Rather than using funding expressly designated by Congress, a project under a pass-the-hat model is funded by contributions from other purpose accounts of multiple agencies, frequently prorated based on agency size or use. This model is different from "fee for service," which also involves agency payments but is usually in return for specific services, such as payroll.
GPO has announced that it is partnering with the Federal Judiciary to create a one-year pilot program providing free public access to court opinions through GPO's Federal Digital System (FDsys).
This seems to be a laudable project, but it is important to note that this is not free access to PACER. PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) is a fee-based service of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.
Document Coverage. The GPO pilot project will only provide access to court opinions. PACER provides access to court opinions and more:
- a Case Locator service (a national index for U.S. district, bankruptcy, and appellate courts)
- listings of all parties and participants including judges, attorneys and trustees
- compilations of case related information such as cause of action, nature of suit and dollar demand
- chronologies of dates of case events entered in the case record
- A claims registry
- A listing of new cases each day in all courts
- Judgments or case status
Court Coverage.The GPO project will begin by providing access to 12 courts and expand to 42 when fully implemented. PACER provides access to 216 federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts.
The GPO project will provide free access to opinions from selected courts. PACER provides only limited free access. Although the GPO announcement says, "Free access to opinions in all Federal courts is currently available via the Judiciary's Public Access to Court Electronic Records service (PACER)," this is not strictly true. PACER charges for each search and for each page of documents retrieved and then "waives" the first $10 of charges in each quarterly billing cycle. (Expanded PACER Fee Waiver.) The PACER fee schedule includes price caps and exceptions making it is hard for any particular user to accurately predict whether any particular information need can be met for free or if a large fee will be imposed. As noted here and here, and here, fees can mount up quickly, restrict use, and limit access.
Document Formats. Although the GPO announcement is not explicit about the formats of documents that it will make a available, FDsys typically makes documents available in PDF and plain text. PACER makes information available in PDF, HTML, and (apparently) plain text output from databases. (See FAQ 'How do you determine what a "page" is for billing purposes?') As noted here, formats matter and neither GPO nor PACER have committed to providing structured, tagged, machine-actionable formats.
Court decisions are a vital part of public information. One recent survey listed PACER access as third in a list of the "Most Wanted Federal Documents." (Show Us the Data: Most Wanted Federal Documents, By Center for Democracy & Technology & OpenTheGovernment.org, March 2009.) If the GPO pilot project is successful, I would hope that it could expand to include more courts and more of the content that is now available through PACER.
It is my understanding, however, that there was a PACER presentation at the spring Depository Library Council meeting and the Council is working on a recommendation to expand a PACER fee waiver in depository libraries. Although I do not have the details of that proposal, it certainly sounds like an attempt to re-intermediate libraries in an age of disintermediation. Such attempts usually fail. (See FGI response to Ithaka draft values proposition for the FDLP and Public comments on Ithaka FDLP Modeling Project draft documents (II) for more on the disintermediation issue.)
A previous PACER free pilot project was stopped abruptly when officials got upset that their system was being used too much. (Is PACER a portent of things to come?.) A similar attempt by GPO to provide a service for free inside depository library buildings and charging a fee for that same service outside those buildings failed. (This was the early days of the FDsys predecessor, GPO Access; see Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program.) The attempt by the Library of Congress to produce a restricted access "e-LCSH" was apparently abandoned.
The current PACER FAQ says that "information gathered from the PACER system is a matter of public record and may be reproduced without permission" but also warns that "misuse" (which "includes, but is not limited to, using an automated process to repeatedly access those portions of the PACER application that do not assess a fee") "is strictly prohibited and may result in criminal prosecution or civil action." It seems clear that the courts continue to resist true free access to this information. We can only hope that the current GPO/FDsys project will help turn that attitude around.
Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor on Legislative Data Release, by John Wonderlich, Sunlight Foundation, (April 29, 2011).
Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor today sent a letter to the Clerk of the House calling for better access to the House's electronic data.
The letter asks that the House release its "legislative data" in "machine-readable formats" and establish standards for the House and its committees to include open data formats such as XML.
Sunlight has a story about the government's Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) website that came online April 18th.
- The Worst Government Website We've Ever Seen?, by Tom Lee, Sunlight Foundation Blog (April 19, 2011).
Contracting databases are part of the world of procurement, procurement is heavily influenced by the Defense Department, and DoD has a proud heritage of producing websites so ugly that they make you want to claw out your eyes. So FAPIIS has company. But if this was just a question of aesthetics, we wouldn't be complaining.
Assuming you're using one of the few web browsers in which the site works at all (Chrome and Safari users are out of luck), the experience is off-putting from the start, as users are warned that their use of the site may be monitored, surveilled, or otherwise spied upon (you don't necessarily surrender your right to speak privately to your priest by using the website, though--thanks for clearing that up, guys!). Perhaps this is why their (arguably superfluous) SSL certificate is utterly broken....
Among other things, Tom notes that the site uses "CAPTCHA."
[T]he use of a captcha to gate government data is outrageous. Government should be making its data more accessible and more machine-readable. Captchas are designed to interfere with automated tools that facilitate malicious acts. But downloading government data is decidedly not a malicious act. Why are we trying to limit machines' ability to use this data?
Here is an interesting case study on the confusing nature of government information in the digital age.
The publication, The Presidents of the United States of America has been published in eighteen editions from 1964 through 2009 by the White House Historical Association "with the cooperation of the National Geographic Society."
First question: Is this a government publication? At least one edition (the 8th, 1981) was "distributed" by GPO (Item No. 1089. SuDocs No. Y 3.H 62/4:2 P 92). (My old copy of "Andriot" shows the White House Historical Association [1961- ] under Y3.H62/4.)
The White House web site has pages from the current publication online, but quick searches of CGP and the GPO bookstore do not show it as currently available in print as a depository item or for sale or distribution by GPO.
Copyright © 1964, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2001, 2006, 2009 by the White House Historical Association. All Rights Reserved
All presidential portraits contained in this book belong to the White House collection. Requests for reprint permissions should be addressed to Rights and Reproductions Manager, White House Historical Association, 740 Jackson Place, NW, Washington, D.C. 20006.
This raises more questions. Is the book really copyrighted? Is the website? (The White House copyright notice says "Pursuant to federal law, government-produced materials appearing on this site are not copyright protected. The United States Government may receive and hold copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.") What happens if someone harvests this website? (Is harvested material subject to a takedown notice?)
But wait! There's more! All of this was prompted by an article about how the books is bad history.
- Historians question White House presidential bios, By HILLEL ITALIE, AP (Apr 5, 2011).
"...the White House biographies offer an unusual history lesson. Some are examples of blatant boosterism and outdated scholarship. Others are oddly selective or politically incorrect."
I often hear people complain about the accuracy of government information and sometimes those complaints segue into an argument that such information shouldn't be made available at all. Government agencies often take down "out of date" information because it is no longer accurate -- and that leaves us with a big problem of how to preserve such information when the only copy was the one on the government web server. But I think it is important for libraries to preserve what a government says about itself, how it summarizes raw data, how it presents policy arguments, and so forth. This is the historical record. We cannot evaluate the record unless we have a record to evaluate.
Giving context to government information is very important, however. That is something that libraries can do by providing metadata describing the source of the information, but also by providing other (non-government) information that puts the government information in a wider context. That is something libraries can do (but government agencies cannot) by building collections that contain both government and non-government information.
But how can libraries do that when we are faced with inconsistent signals about copyright and the status of information produced by the government? How can we do that when we are forced to "harvest" information from the web rather than receive official deposits of government information? And, if libraries don't do this, who will preserve the historical record of our government?
Open standards explained, OpenSource.Com, by Jason Hibbets (13 Oct 2010).
Hibbets introduces two videos by Venky Hariharan (Corporate Affairs Director, Asia-Pacific, at Red Hat).
In this two-part video on the importance of open standards, Venky Hariharan details what open standards are, why open standards are appropriate for e-government, why you should care about how your government preserves your data, and why governments should adopt open standards.
There is a good interview with Carl Malamud in Library Journal. Carl sees the intersection of legally public domain government information with orphan works, all legal information, and information we are losing because of lack of curation and control by the private sector.
- Public Information for All: An Interview with Carl Malamud, By Debbie Rabina, Library Journal (Nov 1, 2010).
Do you see a role for libraries?
The availability of materials and the parceling out in the public domain is a huge issue for libraries, not only for government documents generally and legal material specifically but everything from the letters of Ben Franklin to all this wonderful corpus of materials that has been issued but is no longer available, the problem of orphan and fallow works, for example, the problem of official vendors of materials that don’t allow knowledge to be spread. Librarians should and must be jumping up and down and pounding the table and saying, “This is a huge issue.”
More reporting on the hearing this week on Public Access to Federally-Funded Research:
In his testimony to the House Committee On Oversight and Government Reform, Alan Adler of the Association of American Publishers, said:
Publishers strongly believe that American taxpayers are entitled to the research they've paid for.... But taxpayers have not paid for the private sector, peer-reviewed journal articles reporting on that research.
...Peer-reviewed articles published in scholarly journals are not research, federally-funded or otherwise. They describe and explain the process, findings and significance of research. They require substantial amounts of the publisher's resources to ensure that their content is accurate, new, and important.
Or, as Barbara Fister comments at Inside Higher Education,
Sure, taxpayers are entitled to federally funded research, but "peer-reviewed articles published in scholarly articles are not research." No, they are the intellectual property of publishers, because they're the ones who spend all kinds of money to make sure the science in them is accurate.
I'm not kidding. He actually said that. It's publishers who make sure the research is "accurate, new, and important." That peer review you do for free? They have to spend millions to make sure you do it right.
So we have no problem, and taxpayers have to right to this stuff because it's not research.
Publisher argues free access to research violates administration's transparency initiative, By Aliya Sternstein, NextGov (07/30/2010).
...But a mother of two children diagnosed with a rare disease, who also testified at the hearing, said access to such articles has been critical to treating their illness....
Bringing government up to data. by Abby Phillip and Kim Hart. Politico (7/20/10)
Their goal: Create government websites that are more like an Apple app store than the Department of Motor Vehicles. And for Vivek Kundra, Jeffrey Zients and Aneesh Chopra, that means trying to turn Obama’s vision of data-driven and digital government into reality.